Revisiting Shaq’s 1999-00 MVP Voting

Apparently, even uber-successful stars are just like the rest of us.  They are frustrated by the “what if” moments of life and focus on the regrets.  To that end, on Monday, Shaquille O’Neal told an interviewer that he still detests the only NBA reporter who didn’t vote for Shaq as MVP for the 1999-00 season.  O’Neal called reporter Fred Hickman, “Fred Idiot Hickman” and said that “I hate him.  I don’t need to talk to him.  There’s nothing to apologize about because he destroyed history being a [blankety blank].”  Shaq was angry because Hickman prevented O’Neal from being the first unanimous MVP.  Hickman, instead, voted for Allen Iverson.  Stephen Curry has since been the only unanimous MVP (in 2015-16).

So, Shaq has laid down a few issues to consider.  Let’s take a look FAQ style:

Is Shaq correct to be angry with Hickman?

This is sort of a loaded question.  The easy answer is no.  Shaq won the MVP convincingly in 1999-00.  He has won several titles and made over $292 million in his NBA career (plus endorsements).  Does anyone really give a crap that he was one vote short of unanimous in 1999-00?  Not to the extent that Shaq does.

Putting aside the unnecessary vitriol, Hickman’s vote was pretty indefensible.  Let’s review Shaq’s 1999-00 stats versus AI’s:

-Shaq: 40.0 mpg, 29.7 ppg, .574 FG% (.578 TS%), 13.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 0.5 spg, 3.0 bpg, 30.6 PER, 18.6 WS, .283 WS/48, 9.7 BPM, 9.3 VORP

-AI: 40.8 mpg, 28.4 ppg, .421 FG% (.496 TS%), 3.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.1 spg, 0.1 bpg, 20.0 PER, 6.9 WS, .116 WS/48, 2.6 BPM, 3.3 VORP

Iverson was an amazing player but 1999-00 wasn’t even a particularly good AI season.  Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, and Tim Duncan were sort of close to Shaq but Iverson wasn’t really in the MVP conversation.  So, O’Neal was correct to be befuddled by the Hickman vote.

What was the reaction at the time?

Even without advanced stats, it was pretty obvious at the time that Hickman’s vote was either dumb or done to get some attention.  This old Sports Business Daily entry detailed outrage from many reporters and people around the game.  The same article quoted Hickman as defending his vote with the not-so-convincing argument/distinction that Shaq was the best player but AI was ‘most valuable”: “I am amazed by the uproar my vote…has drawn….If I were asked today to pick a player to start my own franchise with it would be Shaq in a heartbeat.  But asked who the most valuable player of this past season is, I stay with Iverson.  No reservations, no regrets.”  Hickman told ESPN that: “[y]ou take Shaq away from the Lakers and you’ve still got a great team.  You take Iverson away from the 76ers and they are the Clippers, the Hawks. They are no longer contenders.”

This is not a compelling argument.  The fact that Iverson’s teammates were not great does not make him better than Shaq.  The fallacy can easily be revealed by playing out some hypotheticals:  would the 1999-00 Sixers have won more games with Shaq instead of Iverson?  Conversely, the Lakers would have been worse with Iverson in place of Shaq.  Even Hickman would have to admit that Shaq improves both teams more than AI.  Either Iverson was better than Shaq or he wasn’t (and he clearly wasn’t).

The more interesting focal point is Shaq’s reaction to the news at the time.  His current rage may have been stewing for quite a while but it was not fully evident in 2000.  He told the L.A. Times that getting a unanimous MVP vote “would be a nice accolade.  I had a pretty good year.  It’d be nice to be appreciated….”  In the same ESPN article, O’Neal joked about the lone AI vote: “The one guy who didn’t vote [for me]:  Thank you, too.  I appreciate it.”  Shaq wasn’t happy about the vote but he was too busy winning a title to go on a tirade about it.  Perhaps, a few years being out of the game reminded Shaq how ridiculous the vote from 19 years ago was and he forgot he had bigger things to worry about back then.

Was the Hickman vote really the biggest snub of a worthy MVP?

There are a lot of ways to assess snubs.  Worthy MVPs, like Michael Jordan, lost out to great players like Magic Johnson because Magic had a winning sheen.  Still, in those cases, Magic was not nearly as far off in value to MJ as Iverson was to Shaq in 1999-00.  So, instead, let’s focus solely on Shaq’s 1999-00 situation, namely where another player robbed an MVP of a first place vote (or votes) under sillier circumstances.

This could be an unscientific inquiry, so let’s try to put some objective standard. Here’s a year-by-year of the WS/48 of the MVP and the difference with that of the lowest WS/48 (among other players receiving first place votes):

Year First Other WS/48 Delta
1979-80 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Dennis Johnson 0.107
1980-81 Julius Erving Kelvin Ransey 0.175
1981-82 Moses Malone Gus Williams 0.047
1982-83 Moses Malone Magic Johnson 0.041
1983-84 Larry Bird Jeff Ruland/Isiah Thomas 0.071
1984-85 Larry Bird Terry Cummings 0.049
1985-86 Larry Bird Dominique Wilkins 0.074
1986-87 Magic Johnson Hakeem Olajuwon 0.074
1987-88 Michael Jordan Magic Johnson 0.109
1988-89 Magic Johnson Patrick Ewing 0.086
1989-90 Magic Johnson Hakeem Olajuwon 0.097
1990-91 Michael Jordan Clyde Drexler 0.112
1991-92 Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen 0.082
1992-93 Charles Barkley Patrick Ewing 0.072
1993-94 Hakeem Olajuwon Scottie Pippen 0.016
1994-95 David Robinson Patrick Ewing 0.116
1995-96 Michael Jordan Hakeem Olajuwon 0.151
1996-97 Karl Malone Michael Jordan -0.015
1997-98 Michael Jordan Gary Payton 0.048
1998-99 Karl Malone Allen Iverson 0.079
1999-00 Shaquille O’Neal Allen Iverson 0.111
2000-01 Allen Iverson Chris Webber 0.014
2001-02 Tim Duncan Jason Kidd 0.117
2002-03 Tim Duncan Ben Wallace 0.072
2003-04 Kevin Garnett Jermaine O’Neal 0.117
2004-05 Steve Nash Allen Iverson 0.067
2005-06 Steve Nash Kobe Bryant -0.012
2006-07 Dirk Nowitzki Kobe Bryant 0.079
2007-08 Kobe Bryant LeBron James -0.034
2008-09 LeBron James Kobe Bryant 0.112
2009-10 LeBron James Dwight Howard 0.076
2010-11 Derrick Rose Kobe Bryant 0.031
2011-12 LeBron James Kobe Bryant 0.166
2012-13 LeBron James Carmelo Anthony 0.138
2013-14 Kevin Durant LeBron James 0.031
2014-15 Stephen Curry LeBron James 0.089
2015-16 Stephen Curry Unanimous
2016-17 Russell Westbrook LeBron James 0.003
2017-18 James Harden LeBron James 0.068
2018-19 Giannis Antetokounmpo James Harden 0.038


A few notes:

-WS/48 isn’t the be-all-and-end-all method for assessing player value but it’s a nice shorthand inquiry.  On some of the closer margins, the player with the lower WS/48 could very well be the better player.  But on some of the bigger splits, the bad vote is quite evident.

-A review shows that Shaq does not have the biggest beef.  Nine other MVPs have lost first place votes to other players with less value than AI of 1999-00.  The most astounding disparity was in 1980-81 when Julius Erving lost a first place vote to the immortal Kelvin Ransey, who was a rookie point guard for the Blazer.  Ransey put up a solid 15.2 ppg and 6.9 apg but it’s not clear how Ransey could be MVP when he wasn’t even close to the Rookie of the Year.  There is a backstory here somewhere but that will be reviewed another time.

-In the non-Ransey category, LeBron had long surpassed Kobe Bryant as a player by 2011-12 but Kobe still had the rep to impress some voters, even when James was vastly superior as a player.

-Apparently, Michael Jordan hasn’t impressed enough people.  Despite being the best player in the NBA for about a decade, he lost first place votes to directly comparable players who were clearly worse.   In 1990-91, MJ lost some votes to Clyde Drexler.  At least, the argument could be made that the Blazers had a better record (even if that argument isn’t strong, it has some logic to it).  Even worse was MJ losing a vote to Scottie Pippen in 1991-92 (somehow, someone came away with the idea that Robin was better than Batman that season?).

-On the other end of the snubs are the three times where the MVP had a lower WS/48 than any of his competitors with first place votes.  The split in value was quite thin all three times so the votes were not egregious (Kobe over LBJ in 2007-08, Steve Nash over Kobe in 2005-06, and Karl Malone over MJ in 1996-97).

-The worst snub, though, was LeBron in 2012-13.  Like Shaq, LBJ was only one vote from a unanimous MVP.  Also like Shaq, the lone holdout was a much worse player (Carmelo Anthony).  The one vote for Melo was not a New York writer either but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.  His logic: “I thought Anthony was the most valuable player to his team this season, not the best player in the league….If you were to take Anthony off the Knicks, they are a lottery team. James plays with two other All-Stars, the league’s all-time 3-point leader, a defensive stalwart, and a fearless point guard. The Heat are loaded.”

Ugh, time for a face palm…Washburn employed the same weak logic Hickman had in 2000.  To keep these totally consistent, I guess it would be appropriate for LeBron to curse out Washburn on a podcast in 2032 as well.

Shaq’s misplaced beef…

In the end, Shaq was correct to conclude Hickman was very wrong in his vote.  Shaq’s anger, though, is misplaced.  The margin of a vote isn’t what matters.  What really matters is winning MVPs and Shaq only has one.  This is fairly astounding considering how dominant Shaq was.  He was a very viable MVP candidate pretty much every year from 1993-94 to 2002-03.

Take 2000-01: Shaq led the league in WS and WS/48 but got only 18 first place votes compared with AI’s 93.  Shaq had .245 WS/48 against Iverson’s .190.  Iverson certainly had an MVP argument but not a single GM would have taken AI over Shaq that season.

Indeed, John Hollinger summed up Shaq’s plight well in the 2002 Basketball Prospectus.  Hollinger wrote that “no player has been routinely shafted in the MVP voting more than [Shaq] has….some of the other recent votes have been completely ridiculous….He was clearly the best player in 1998-99 when Karl Malone won, and one can make the argument that he deserved it ahead of Malone the year before as well.  That is at least two MVP awards he should have won and didn’t, and there were several other years he deserved to finish higher in the voting.”

So, O’Neal’s complaints are more legitimate than even he realizes.  He should forget Hickman and wonder how a bunch of other NBA writers were viewing the game 20 years ago.

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